It is with deep humility that I address this gathering to mark the 79th posthumous birthday of our great leader, Ken Saro-Wiwa. I thank Ogoni Civil Society Stakeholders’ Forum for facilitating this event.
For some of us Ogoni has become the training ground for environmental justice. It has remained the prime territory for learning how difficult it is to undo ecological harm once it has occurred; once it has been allowed to fester and take root. The Ogoni people have also given us a clear base to understudy the workings of a people-driven non-violent revolt; the challenges, the pitfalls and the triumphs. Ogoni has been a metaphor for ecocide and an inspiration for resistance.
Standing at the centre of the Ogoni experience are a number of personalities one of whom is Ken Saro-Wiwa. His leadership at various levels and platforms left indelible marks on the socio-ecological struggles of the Ogoni people and others. Some of us make regular visits to the polluted sites in Ogoni to remind ourselves that ecocide in any location is a crime against Mother Earth and all our relatives. Ogoni reminds us all that corporate greed can covert a verdant land into a land where humans and other living beings are literally either sick or dead.
The literary output of Ken Saro-Wiwa helped to preserve his thoughts for us and for generations yet unborn. Needless to say, his bluntness also made him controversial. That can be understood because when you are a minority fighting to breathe, those whose knees are pressed into your neck would claim that as long as you can complain it means you can breathe. In other words, their knees would only be lifted from your neck when you fall silent. Dead. The noose snuffed the physical life from him 25 years ago, but he still speaks. His satirical story, Africa Kills Her Sun[ii], shows how fiction can chisel a message in stone. Writing about how a priest would approach to pray for a person about to be executed, he said: “The priest will pray for our souls. But it’s not us he should be praying for. He should be praying for the living, for those whose lives are a daily torment.”
His fiction was never altogether fictive. According to one Onookome Okome, “These fictive characters are modelled on social types and local events. This explains why some of these characters provoked great and enthusiastic, albeit sometimes acerbic debate in Nigeria’s literary history.” Okome goes on to say that “his political ideas about the Nigerian Federation were even more controversial. His book on the Nigerian civil war (On A Darkling Plain: An Account of The Nigerian Civil War), carefully conceived around the minority/majority problems of Nigeria’s ethnic groups, aroused heated hate-debate, especially among members of the three largest Nigeria ethnic groups.”[iii]
His focus on bringing the plight of the Ogoni people to the world in the context of the unequal majority-minority relations within the Nigerian state combined with the brutal state capture by notorious transnational oil companies obviously earned him many adversaries, including those who eventually orchestrated his judicial murder along with Barinem Kiobel, Saturday Dobee, Paul Levura, Nordu Eawo, Felix Nuate, Daniel Gbokoo, John Kpuinen and Baribor Bera. Their death was both an epitome of the viciousness of an unholy matrimony between a rapacious transnational entity and an autocratic state, and a glaring failure of international diplomacy.[iv]
Saro-Wiwa was conscious of the fact that the consequences of the struggle could be dire, even when prosecuted non-violently. In Silence Would be Treason: Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa, he stated that he signed a death warrant when he “undertook to confront Shell and the Nigerian establishment.” He wrote that if his life was not cut short, he would look forward to “A few more books, maybe, & the opportunity to assist others. In a letter he wrote on 19 June 1995, he stated: “I know they will do everything to resist us and that they may still want me out of the way. I am not careless of my safety, but I do recognise and have always recognised that my cause could lead to death. But as the saying goes, how can man die better/than facing fearful odds/ for the ashes of his fathers/and the temple of his Gods? No, one cannot allow the fear of death to dent one’s beliefs and actions. I only wish there were more Ogoni people on the ground. However, the cause cannot die.”[v]
The matter of having more Ogoni people on the ground to keep the struggle alive remains an active concern; a task that must be done. Yes, the cause has not died, and 27 years after the expulsion of Shell from Ogoni, the oil wells are still not gushing crude. However, the spate of oil pollution remains and the clean-up of the territory although commenced has its speed and mode of delivery highly contested. Having layers of leadership on the ground is essential for any movement. The Ogoni struggle has been kept alive by the deep mobilisations that have gone on over the years and by the clear understanding of the value of their environment and cultural autonomy by the majority of the people. Organisational efforts have floundered and become quite fractious at times, probably due to an alternative notion of sacrifice, superficial commitment to the ideals of the collective. It may well also be driven by impulses of indiscipline and possible conspiracy to subvert the pursuit of the common good.
The Ogoni Bill of Rights[vi] of November 1990 is a major milestone document, serving to coalesce the pains, dreams and demands of the Ogoni people. It stands as a major decolonial document and was the precursor of similar pursuits by other ethnic nationalities in the Niger Delta, including the Kaiama Declaration of the Ijaws, Ogoni Bill of Rights, lkwerre Rescue Charter, Aklaka Declaration for the Egi, the Urhobo Economic Summit Resolution and the Oron Bill of Rights, amongst others.[vii]
Article 16 of the Ogoni Bill of rights stated that “neglectful environmental pollution laws and sub-standard inspection techniques of the Federal authorities have led to the complete degradation of the Ogoni environment, turning our homeland into an ecological disaster.” Three decades later, this summation remains accurate, even more poignant.
The Ogoni Bill of Rights spoke of the land turning into an ecological disaster. This position was validated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) in their report of the Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland.[viii] The report submitted to the Nigerian government in August 2011 revealed extensive pollution of the soil by petroleum hydrocarbons in land areas, swamps and sediments. The effort to remediate the Ogoni environment, as we all know, is handled by HYPREP.
A recent visit[ix] to some of the remediation sites some weeks ago was quite revealing. Whereas the depth of hydrocarbon pollution was at an alarming 5 metres at the time UNEP conducted its study, the state of affairs has deteriorated over the years. Hydrocarbons pollution was found to have now gone as deep as an alarming 10 metres at Lot 2. One other finding was that 30,000 litres of petrol was recovered from this Lot. We saw a layer of hydrocarbons on the excavated pit at Lot 16, at Korokoro community, besides the tanks of recovered crude that were stored nearby.
The recovery of crude oil from the remediation sites show that without the remediation, the pollution would obviously sink deeper, leaving the disaster more intractable. It also offers a stark warning to oilfield communities that even where the land looks normal, tests need to be done at intervals of time to ensure the integrity of what lies beneath the surface.
November 1990 – when the Ogoni Bill of Rights was issued and November 1995 – when Ken Saro-Wiwa and the other leaders were executed are cardinal milestones in the march for ecological and socio-political justice for the Ogoni people and all marginalised peoples that are victims of destructive extractivism.
25 years after the judicial murders, the wounds inflicted on the Ogoni people are yet to heal. 25 years after the act, the Nigerian State has still not found the place to formally exonerate the Ogoni leaders and foster healing in the land. 25 years after the macabre act, even the sculpture in honour of the Ogoni 9 lies captive at the Apapa quays in Lagos, Nigeria, held by a system that is afraid to come to terms with an artistic artefact.[x] Who will tell the Nigerian government that arresting and detaining a piece of sculpture in an effort to block the memory of crimes committed by the state is an exercise in futility?
Ken Saro-Wiwa saw it all. He felt it. He told it. He challenged all. His last public speech or allocutus, stands like a banner at the head of a marching column and we do well to pay attention:
We all stand before history. I am a man of peace, of ideas. Appalled by the denigrating poverty of my people who live on a richly endowed land, distressed by their political marginalization and economic strangulation, angered by the devastation of their land, their ultimate heritage, anxious to preserve their right to life and to a decent living, and determined to usher to this country as a whole a fair and just democratic system which protects everyone and every ethnic group and gives us all a valid claim to human civilization, I have devoted my intellectual and material resources, my very life, to a cause in which I have total belief and from which I cannot be blackmailed or intimidated.[xi]
Ken Saro-Wiwa was a man ahead of his time. He was a bright light. We all have a duty to ensure that his light shines on. Happy posthumous birthday, great son of Ogoni, Nigeria and Africa.
This was a speech by Nnimmo Bassey at the summit convened by Ogoni Civil Society Stakeholders’ Forum to Mark the 79thposthumous birthday of Ken Saro-Wiwa on 10th October 2020.
[i] Based on a chapter by Nnimmo Bassey titled Ogoniland: A People-Driven Non-Violent Revolt which will be in a forthcoming book marking the 25th anniversary of the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa, Barinem Kiobel, Saturday Dobee, Paul Levura, Nordu Eawo, Felix Nuate, Daniel Gbokoo, John Kpuinen and Baribor Bera.
[ii] Ken Saro-Wiwa (1989) Africa Kills Her Sun.
[iii] Onookome Okome (2000). Before I am Hanged: Ken Saro-Wiwa – Literature, Politics and Dissent. Trenton: Africa World Press, Inc.
[iv] Partick Naagbanton (2016). Footprints of Nkpoo Sibara, Dele Giwa and Ken Saro-Wiwa, Vol. 1. Makurdi: DNA Traeces Empire Limited
[v] Íde Corley, Helen Fallon and Laurence Cox, eds (2013). Silence Would be Treason – Last Writings of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Daraja Press
[vi] Ogoni Bill of Rights (1990). http://www.waado.org/nigerdelta/RightsDeclaration/Ogoni.html
[vii] Nnimmo Bassey. 01 August 2013. Two Years After the UNEP Report – Ogoni Still Groans. http://nnimmo.blogspot.com/2013/08/two-years-after-unep-report-ogoni-still.html
[viii] UNEP (2011). Environmental Assessment of Ogoniland. https://www.unenvironment.org/explore-topics/disasters-conflicts/where-we-work/nigeria/environmental-assessment-ogoniland-report
[ix] This visit was on Friday 11, September 2020
[x] Susanna Rustin (5 November 2015). Ken Saro-Wiwa memorial art bus denied entry to Nigeria. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/05/ken-saro-wiwa-memorial-art-bus-denied-entry-to-nigeria
[xi] Ken Saro-Wiwa (1995). Trial Speech of Ken Saro-Wiwa. https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Trial_Speech_of_Ken_Saro-Wiwa